News - March 31, 2010

The garden of science

Sunshine, and the spring-time warbling of blackbirds. A friend and I are strolling past the allotments of the Wageningse Eng, where vegetables are grown with tender loving care and patience.

It's wonderful to be walking among the plots and to see the different ways of gardening. Just a few months to go and then the produce can be harvested. Unless diseases or slugs spoil it all.
'How's your job?'
A daring question to ask on a day off. 'It's going fine', I say.
'So you're getting good results?'
'Not as yet.'
'No good results and yet it's going fine?'
I let this pass as she is not a scientist. 'When you do research you very much hope for good results', I therefore reply patiently. 'But sometimes it's just a matter of keeping at it to achieve those.'
'So you carry out pointless experiments?'
Her voice ends on a high squeal.
And it does indeed sound odd. 'Not pointless, but yes, without real results. Research is often ninety percent frustration.'
'So, a lot of work for a small harvest.'
'That's unavoidable in the garden of science. But fortunately that ten percent harvest does provide huge satisfaction.'
I look around me. Some of the little gardens seem very structured. Others are one bog ecological chaos. A wealth of produce, especially weeds. The differences in working methods are only too clear. Show me your garden and I know who you are.
Only now do I see the connection with my work. Sowing and reaping. Establishing structure, or letting chaos run riot. Watering the plants to achieve gradual growth. Last week I was mainly busy sowing, and now samples are waiting to be measured. Next week I am hoping for a plentiful harvest.
I can feel a smile spreading. 'I'm definitely never going to get an allotment.'
My friend stops to face me. 'Why not?'
'It's lovely to wander past someone else's garden on my day off without having to work in it. And what's more, their results are for sale at the supermarket. Now, that's what I call frustrating!'